La Maison Couture: The independent described you as having “re-branded the jeweller as an artist rather than an artisan”. Do you think the two are mutually exclusive? How do upcoming designers inhabit both roles without sacrificing either?
Stephen Webster: The question of artist/artisan/jeweller, comes up a lot now that there is a lot more creativity in the mainstream and consciousness of jewellery design and jewellery buyers. As a creative jeweller, I embrace this shift. I have spent now what seems a lifetime pushing and pulling fine jewellery out of the place where it had become stuck. This wasn’t always the case, in different periods of history, jewellery had been very much a creative as well as decorative art form.
I consider myself first and foremost; a jeweller, lucky enough to have collaborated with artists, these collaborations can be beneficial to both parties, probably because a fine artist and a fine jeweller can work on the same pieces but the paths that lead there are very different. Upcoming designers need to make the choice: artist or fine jeweller.
On Rock Vault…
La Maison Couture: When curating Rock Vault, what are the unique qualities that you are looking for in a jewellery collection or the designer behind it?
Stephen Webster: To qualify for inclusion into rock vault, applicants must show originality in their products, use elements that can be considered acceptable in ‘fine’ jewellery and have ambitions to grow their businesses in a market where I’m best positioned to help, for example the US, UK! China and Russia.
La Maison Couture: Have you found that there is a specific area in which emerging jewellery designers most need guidance?
Stephen Webster: After 41 years in the jewellery industry, I can offer guidance in most related fields such as customs and export, shipping, service, through to merchandising and dealing with wholesale clients, this is possibly the relationship that is most crucial to growth for any emerging designer and where my in put is probably most valuable.
La Maison Couture: What is the most important lesson that you hope young jewellery designers will have learnt when emerging from the Rock Vault programme?
Stephen Webster: The most important lesson that Rock Vault graduates take away is a better understanding of how and where their products and businesses are positioned in a wider more global context. How being part of a group that now carries its own reputation as a platform for British based creativity, is a lot more powerful than being a lone voice in the fledgling days of building a business.
La Maison Couture: Do you have any “ex-Rock Vaulters” that you are especially proud of today?
Stephen Webster: I’m proud of all the ex ‘rock vaulters’. My company’s reward is seeing the difference we are able to make to the designers over the three year program. Graduates such as Fernando, Melanie, Tomasz and Imogen, are all great talents, who no matter what are destined for greater things. We are proud to have been able to give a helping hand.
La Maison Couture: What piece of advice were you given, or do you wish you were given, when you started out?
Stephen Webster: I’m not sure I was given too much advice, I do remember being encouraged to just keep on doing what I was doing by the then MD of Garrard. At the time Garrard was the crown jeweller and the establishment, I, on the other hand was a great craftsman but naturally rebellious in my approach to my trade. It was good advice and I would pass that on to anyone entering my industry who feels like they want to shake things up a little; go for it.
La Maison Couture: Have there been any surprises in your time as a mentor?
Stephen Webster: The biggest surprise has been the encouragement I have received from many quarters. However I have been equally surprised by the lack of financial support I have received from an industry that has the wherewithal to get behind platforms offering help to the next generation. My time is free but I’m aware that we could make even more impact if there were a few coins in the kitty.
La Maison Couture: Would you ever consider an international branch of Rock Vault? Where would you look to find new talent?
Stephen Webster: I would rather other players in the international jewellery industry created their own initiatives, than taking what is essentially a part of the BFC, who exist to promote British based talent.
On Positive luxury…
La Maison Couture: Do you think the rise in ethically minded luxury is driven by a perhaps more savvy, millennial audience? How have things changed since you first started working in jewellery?
Stephen Webster: There is no doubt that the millennial are the perfect consumers for ethically produced products. Stephen Webster was amongst the first jewellers to be awarded a fair trade gold licence, at the time I made the trip to the mines in Peru where fair trade were assisting the communities, I came back and became very vocal about the importance of responsibly mined gold, no one really cared. Today millennial do and will continue to care. Now is the time to be POS situ even about luxury.
La Maison Couture: What is the ideal process for sustainable and fair jewellery production? Is it achievable?
Stephen Webster: It’s impossible to tick all the boxes in one go, what is important is that the process is started and continued until all the boxes are ticked. Stephen Webster have achieved positive luxury status. We are proud of this, we continue to strive to maintain and progress this status as the goal post shift, which indeed they will.
La Maison Couture: You’ve described your early employer in Canada as a ‘gem adventurer’, travelling the world sourcing exotic stones for his jewellery. In turn, As a Fair-Trade ambassador, you’ve had the experience of meeting miners in Peru who work for $2 dollars a day in dangerous and sometimes exploitative conditions. Evidently, the people behind a collection, and the workforce that supplies the materials,, have very different experiences… What can designers and consumers do to help make the industry fairer for all?
Stephen Webster: Throughout my life I have had many encounters with the people behind the scenes of the jewellery industry, some stories are more positive than others. The fact is that there will always be somewhere in the chain that involves people who usually by economic circumstance are not treated fairly, either due to unsafe working conditions or practices. These are exactly the areas that need to be improved or alternatives found. There are NGO’s such as fairtrade and fairmined who draw attention to the need for change and engage in the move to better practice. As jewellers we need to run businesses, small business, specially cannot spend too much time and resource on big picture problems. However even one man bands can be responsible in the way they conduct business, avoiding things that are no longer acceptable and embrace positive change as it’s made, even in their own workshops.
La Maison Couture: What role do you think online retail has in connecting discerning customers with emerging designers and responsible jewellery brands?
Stephen Webster: Online retail is the perfect platform to connect consumers to responsible designers and makers. My experience is that e retailers know more about their clients than traditional retailers. There are many more opportunities to use a positive story to become a selling tool.
On Stephen Webster…
La Maison Couture: Could you talk a little about the experience of bespoke jewellery, do you prefer interacting with your customers this way? What does it allow you to create?
Stephen Webster: Bespoke is probably the area we enjoy most. Whether that a black diamond bat brooch for Ozzy Osborn or a necklace inspired by the birch forests of Baltic Finland. We give 200% to these projects. Customers never cease to be in awe of the process of creating original designs and them making the finish piece in our London workshop. This also defines true luxury, something that no one else has.
La Maison Couture: You described having involved a gun engraver in your process, are there any other practices or creators that you’ve drawn inspiration and input from for your collections that might surprise people?
Stephen Webster: A gun engraver is not any different to a first class jewellery engraver, not all engravers can engrave guns but all gun engravers can engrave jewellery. We work with blade makers for our knives and cutlery, a great blade maker can also make a sword. We work with so many skilled craftspeople because I’m always trying to incorporate old techniques into modern pieces.
La Maison Couture: What is the most extraordinary piece that you have created for a client?
Stephen Webster: Some people would say a tiara is extraordinary, to others the sculptural rings from the 7 deadly sins. I made a gold finger once for a hypnotist who lost his finger and ability to hypnotise, in a motorcycle accident. Even I thought that a tad extraordinary.
La Maison Couture: You’ve described sending your employees to look at Frans Hals’ ‘Laughing Cavalier’ in the Wallace Collection as a therapy of sorts… If you could only draw inspiration from one art gallery for the rest of your life, which would you pick and why?
Stephen Webster: My favourite art gallery is the Royal Academy. I am a member of the Academicians room which allows me access to the gallery two hours before the public on Friday mornings, (including breakfast). By far the most civilised way to view the big popular shows they hold there, minus the jostling.